How to come out ahead – even when clients are dissatisfied and irate.
By Bridget McCrea
Anna Dezember walked into a classroom in March during The Precast Show knowing that she was going to be leaving the session with newfound knowledge. As a sales representative and corporate secretary at StructureCast in Bakersfield, Calif., Dezember had signed up for the “Tough Questions from Tough Customers: Taking Control of Difficult Conversations” with the goal of learning some new, effective communication techniques.
“In sales and project management, I spend a lot of time interacting with customers,” says Dezember. “Consequently I do come across customers whose project expectations weren’t outlined properly at the outset or that ran into communication issues.” When customer expectations aren’t met – particularly in today’s budget-conscious, highly competitive business environment – communications can break down even further, leaving Dezember to straighten things out.
“My goal is to drive the relationship with the customer in a very clear manner that spells out exactly what we can do and within what time frame,” says Dezember, who spends a lot of time on the phone interacting with clients. “I try to avoid situations that produce unhappy customers.”
Dezember’s critical role in StructureCast’s customer service organization made her the perfect candidate for speaker Anthony Huey’s presentation. “The session title intrigued me,” she says. “I wanted to see what kind of professional, effective techniques I could use to address difficult situations from a point of strength.”
The session didn’t disappoint. According to Dezember, the top three takeaways that she’s already put to work at her own company are: always address the question that the customer is asking; select an approach and stick with it; and make sure you are getting your point across. Dezember says the first tactic is key for companies that would otherwise prefer to take the “conflict avoidance” stance and completely ignore the complaints and gripes.
“Even if the situation is stressful, you have to answer that phone call or email, or it’s just going to get worse,” says Dezember. “You don’t have to answer every question on the spot, but you do have to address the issue and let the customer know that you’re doing something about it.”
Getting your point across – even if the customer is upset and boisterous – is equally as important, and goes hand in hand with basic acknowledgement of the complaint. “Tell them you hear what they’re saying, and then move right into your key point,” says Dezember. “Keep it succinct and easy to remember, and repeat it a few times if you have to. Whatever it takes, let customers know that you’re aware of the issue and that you’re working on a solution.”
Dezember also learned a thing or two about dealing with the media, particularly in negative circumstances. A failed product that inflicts injuries or claims lives, for example, can quickly spiral into a media nightmare if the precaster doesn’t have proper training on how to handle it.
“Good news has to be delivered quickly, but bad news – like an employee filing a lawsuit – must be distributed and/or addressed even faster,” says Dezember, who hopes that her firm is never in the position to have to use that basic media-handling rule. “But if it does happen, I’ll be much better prepared to deal with it.”
Huey, president of Reputation Management Associates in Columbus, Ohio, attempted to break down a very difficult topic into digestible chunks. His aim with the “Tough Questions from Tough Customers” session was to help companies take a methodical, strategic approach to difficult questions from clients, media representatives, business partners and others.
“In today’s business world, everyone needs to know how to handle difficult questions,” says Huey. The problem, he adds, is that many people are fearful of the questions they’ll be presented with and, as a result, want to ignore them or turn the other cheek. Hoping that the problem will go away won’t cut it, says Huey, who advises precasters to come up with a uniform plan for dealing with customer inquiries.
Part of that plan can be a simple “throwaway line,” says Huey. “This is a perfectly memorized, meaningless phrase that you can use to buy some ‘think time’ for yourself,” he explains, noting that it takes only five seconds for the human mind to come up with a response to a difficult question. A good example of a throwaway line would be: “That’s an interesting question. Let me take some time to explain my point of view to you.”
Throwaway lines are end-alls, according to Huey, who teaches a three-part formula to respond to difficult questions:
1. Address the question or satisfy the questioner (you cannot ignore the question).
2. Get away from the question with a technique (bridge, bump and run, or turn the tables).
3. Say whatever you want to say (focus on your agenda).
Here’s an example of the formula in action:
Customer: Can you tell me what caused the accident?
Precaster: No, not at this time (addresses the question), but I can tell you this (the bridge technique): We will leave no stone unturned in discovering what happened here today. Our number one concern is for the safety of our workers and for the safety of everyone on this job site (the agenda).
Huey says the bridge technique is a particularly effective strategy for diffusing tough situations. “A bridge is something that gets you from where you are to where you want to be, generally over an obstacle,” he says. “Similarly, a verbal bridge gets you from the subject that you don’t really want to focus on and working toward a solution to the customer issue. It appeases the client enough to give you time to research the facts and get to the root of the problem.”
Having an agenda in mind before going face to face with the customer is also important. “If you’ve experienced a catastrophic failure with one of your products, and if you’re heading down to the job site to deal with it, make sure you have an agenda,” says Huey. Consider, for example, what types of questions you’ll be asked and rehearse your answers in advance.
“Being able to anticipate those questions and think out the responses is the magic wand,” says Huey. “The problem is that very few people prepare in advance for these difficult situations and wind up blindsided.”
Putting the advice to work
Another attendee at Huey’s session was Michael Tidwell, president of Bartow Precast in Cartersville, Ga. In his role, Tidwell manages both customer and employee relations on a daily basis. He says he signed up for the session to get some tips on managing those relationships and to hear what other precasters had to say about difficult communication.
“My employees take care of the standard and routine tasks, and it’s up to me to handle the more challenging situations,” says Tidwell, who came away from the session a bit more educated on the most professional, effective ways to deal with tough questions. He says Huey’s advice to “always address the question” was particularly useful, as were the speaker’s myriad examples of how to use “bridging” techniques.
“He showed us how to respond so that it doesn’t sound like we’re trying to avoid the facts, even if there was no perfect answer for the situation,” says Tidwell. “He also gave us some advice on how to satisfy the person on the other end of the conversation without necessarily having to go overboard by giving out information that didn’t need to be shared.”
Ultimately, Huey says following the Boy Scout’s motto to “be prepared” will help precasters navigate difficult communications with clients, media, business partners and anyone else who poses a difficult question.
“If you don’t know how to answer difficult questions from a customer, and if you lose that customer, then you’ll definitely want to rethink making the time to learn how to respond to these situations,” says Huey. “Remember that 30 years of hard work can be destroyed in 30 seconds. To avoid the destruction, you have to be able to communicate effectively, face the tough questions and not get caught off guard.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.
Coffee with 60 Minutes
In the modern business world of instant communications, dealing with the media is not something to be passed off to other staff members or dismissed as unimportant. According to Huey, it begins with your commitment to learn and follow basic guidelines, such as:
• Responding to questions as directly and briefly as you can in a positive manner
• Making yourself accessible to reporters
• Providing supplemental information in the form of fact sheets
• Having a professional understanding of the media’s needs
And it’s just as important not to:
• Mislead or lie
• Say “no comment”
• Argue with reporters (remember, says Huey, they always have the last word)
“In today’s media-intense climate, business leaders must realize one truism,” says Huey, “and that’s the fact that relationships with the news media are now a corporate responsibility and not just a concern for the public relations department.”
By learning the “how-tos” of media interviewing, executives can calmly walk through the door of their offices, even if 60 Minutes is waiting in the lobby with cameras and reporters. “As a modern business leader, you need to be prepared, coached and aggressive,” says Huey. “Then invite 60 Minutes in for some coffee!”
5 Public Speaking Tips
Giving speeches in public is difficult, even for the best of us. “Polls continue to rank public speaking as the number one fear in America, even over death,” says Huey. “In fact, more people are afraid to speak than to be eaten by a shark, get burned, go blind, or dozens of other horrific things.”
Call it fear, Huey says, but what you are really going through is an over-supply of adrenaline. “When your system receives too much adrenaline, the hormone creates fear and anxiety,” he says.
Here are Huey’s tips on how to reduce that problem and become an effective public speaker:
1. Be prepared. Studies show that nervousness can be reduced by about 60 percent if you are well prepared. This means reading your speech or presentation out loud at least five times. Do it in front of someone and ask for an evaluation. “Reading silently to yourself is mostly a waste of time,” says Huey.
2. Deep breathing. About five minutes before speaking, take in a very deep breath, then exhale slowly as you let all your muscles relax. Try doing it while standing and don’t do it more than twice (“you may pass out,” says Huey).
3. Minor exercising. Go out in the hall and speed-walk for a few minutes. Exercise your legs and arms at the table while awaiting your turn. Get rid of that excess adrenaline.
4. Don’t announce your anxiety. “I cringe when a speaker starts out with, ‘I am a bit nervous, so here goes…’” says Huey. “In my training, I videotape participants and show them over and over again that, while they are nervous, no one can tell it during the video replay.”
5. It really is all in your head. As nervous, shaky and sweaty as you are, you’re probably the only one who knows it. “That knowledge alone, gained through the videotape exercise and critique sessions,” says Huey, “is often enough to reduce nervousness by 30 to 40%.”
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